What role could social media play in commissioning?

Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope argues that commissioners should use social media as a way to collaborate with citizens to open up commissioning.

In the first blog we considered the need to open up commissioning and this is where social media can help. Social media offers a range of tangible benefits for commissioners, which mirror those that we have documented for the policy and research community (and are the inspiration behind our Guerilla Policy platform). It is cheap and easy to use. It can provide a way for commissioners to engage citizens and providers in the commissioning process. It can play a significant role in building the confidence and trust of citizens and services users in what is actually selected because the commissioning process has been conducted in an open and collaborative way using social media.  Most importantly it can help commissioners to improve the quality and impact of services by opening up commissioning to new people and ideas.

When it comes to social media, commissioning seems like it’s in the dark ages. Even half of MPs now have an active Twitter account – yet a Facebook page or Twitter account would be seen as unusual, even regarded as risky, for a commissioning team. This means that commissioners are missing out on the opportunities that social media offers to collaborate with the people who use and provide public services to commission services that better meet need and use resources effectively.

Social media is an accessible, mass-market technology that is increasingly blurring the distinctions between ‘producers’ and ‘consumes’ of services.  Social media is a platform for collaboration.  It can facilitate the discovery of new or different insights about a social problem.  It can allow ordinary citizens, people who use and provide public services and commissioners to come together to co-design products and services.  More people involved means that more ideas are considered and there is greater transparency over what is actually commissioned resulting in good quality services that deliver better outcomes.

Social media is not a panacea and is at the end of the day a mechanism to support a wider shift in commissioning patterns from a command and control approach to one that is iterative, open, citizen-centred and reflects the lived experience of users.  A good example of this shift is the Make it Work service in Sunderland.  The service design agency Live:Work were commissioned to work in partnership with Sunderland City Council to design a new service to support hard to reach unemployed people secure employment.  Make it Work was designed through a collaborative process involving over 280 practitioners, employers and clients.  It became a two-year and £5m Working Neighbourhood Fund Service which has supported over 800 people, of who 200 have secured work (at a cost of less than £5,000 per person).  Where this example differs from the norm is that the commissioning cycle was broken up with the ‘needs analysis’ and ‘development of options’ phases undertaken by Live:Work, with a provider then selected to actually deliver the service.  The reach of these examples is going to be limited in an era of public sector cuts, but social media offers up a way to collaborate with citizens in the earliest stages of commissioning (building on this example) at far less cost.

Pepsi Refresh provides further inspiration for how social media could play a role in commissioning.  A web platform – http://www.refresheverything.com – was used to crowd source project ideas that could receive funding.  Up to 32 projects could receive funding each month.  The platform gauged the reaction of people to proposed projects to assist in determining those that should receive funding.  There are obvious parallels here with commissioning.

Both of these examples point to a different commissioning process, which is open, collaborative and built on the needs, lived experience and aspirations of those who will ultimately benefit from the services that are commissioned.  Social media provides a way  to help spread these approaches by providing the means to engage citizens and service users at far less cost and in a more focused way.  A local authority could for instance crowd source a needs assessment or use a social networking site to record people’s experiences of a service that is commissioned.  In the next blog, we will go onto further consider how social media could be used in the commissioning cycle.

The use of social media challenges the conventional way of commissioning as discussed in the previous blog and there will inevitably be concerns about the use of social media from commissioners and providers.  Obvious objections include how will this mesh with competition law, how do we up skill commissioners to adopt these methods, could the process be hijacked by a small minority motivated by a particular agenda and how can the commercial sensitivities of providers be protected?  All are genuine concerns and as a Director of Development for a large national disability charity I share some of them; yet these should not be barriers to change.  There are ways to remove these.  Commissioning is a complex, multi-disciplinary process that could be re-imagined as an iterative process, which we will consider further in our next blog.

Now social media should not be seen as a cheap alternative to commissioning of services.  This is not an agenda for cuts.  It will still need to be resourced, but it does hint at a new way of working for commissioners that we will look at in our next blog.  It is also not a panacea to solve all problems with commissioning.

Ultimately, why social media offers benefits to commissioners is that it helps people to feel that their voice is heard in decisions that are made about services that should be commissioned in their area.  Surely that can only be a good thing?


Could social media help to open up commissioning?

Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope argues that commissioners should use social media as a way to collaborate with citizens to open up commissioning.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will look at how commissioners can embrace social media. Opening up commissioning can play a significant role in ensuring local accountability over what is commissioned ultimately leading to better, cheaper services. Social media could help.

The NCVO defines commissioning as “…the process of finding out about public needs, then designing and putting in place services that address those needs.” Commissioning is a complex, multi-disciplinary process involving research and analysis, design, procurement, contract management and evaluation. Commissioning has often been overlooked by policymakers but there is increasing recognition that it is an important policy lever as increasing amounts of public services are outsourced, a direction of travel that the Coalition has committed to speed up.  David Cameron set out in a speech in July 2011 a commitment to open up public services by challenging the ‘presumption’ that the state should deliver services rather than the voluntary or private sector.

Commissioning has traditionally been a function of public bodies like central government departments, local authorities and NHS bodies. However increasing amounts of public services are actually commissioned by the private and voluntary sector; with the Work Programme being the best example of this with private prime contractors responsible for commissioning a range of providers in their supply chain.  Commissioning by the private and voluntary sector offers up opportunities for innovation but there are also equally concerns about how services are commissioned by these bodies.

Commissioning is still largely a ‘closed shop’, operating in a bubble of the ‘professional knows best’ culture with activity taking place behind closed doors. Bureaucratic hurdles such as requirement of bidders to provide three years of accounts or TUPE obligations and perceived legal barriers such as EU competition law stifle the appetite for innovation and collaboration. This results in only limited engagement with relevant stakeholders either at the beginning of the commissioning process or after it has been completed.

This ‘closed shop’ approach to commissioning hampers innovation as the insights and ideas of providers and citizens are neglected or ignored.  Collaboration between providers is constrained because this approach results in competition rather than partnership, with providers reluctant to share any of their ‘added value’ for fear of it reducing their advantage when it comes to the scoring of their tender.  Finally, it reinforces inertia as commissioners are reluctant to de-commission or radically change what is commissioned.

There have been some innovations on the fringes of commissioning, but these are not yet the mainstream. Participatory budgeting is a process that many local authorities have adopted to engage local citizens in deciding how to spend small pots of discretionary funds. It was developed in Porto Alegre in Brazil has since been adopted in the UK. In my own borough of Lambeth residents were asked to decide which community projects should receive investment from a £250,000 investment pot. Residents were not able to suggest projects but could decide which of those offered up should receive funding.

Whilst Turning Point’s Connected Care uses a community research model to support the commissioning process.  Community researchers are involved in the development of a comprehensive needs assessment to inform what is commissioned. These researchers are local citizens who have received training to take part in a structured research process. The model has obvious benefits in that the local community plays an integral role in helping to shape what is commissioned but this approach has been criticized for being too expensive.

Both of these models offer interesting insights about future possibilities for a more collaborative and open approach to commissioning, where citizens play an active role as ‘producers’ as well as ‘consumers’ of services. Their reach could be expanded further through the use of social media. Community researchers could for instance use social media to crowd source quantitative and qualitative data to inform the needs assessment. Yet both of these examples operate at the fringes of public services. Examples of where citizens are engaged in designing services that help the public sector respond to the big challenges of cuts, an ageing society and climate change are harder to come by.

At the moment, we are thinking about the wider application of Guerilla Policy. Guerilla Policy is an experiment in how research and policy development can be opened up through the use of social media. Could this approach be applied to commissioning? So far we have talked a lot about national policy in our work (and it would be interesting to speculate on what the Work Programme would look like if the design had been crowdsourced). However, most commissioning however takes place at the local level, so the ‘guerilla policy’ approach also needs to be applied locally. In this series we will consider what role social media could play and where commissioners could adopt this approach.


Guerilla Policy: Start the conversation, join the conversation

Today we’ve launched a new discussion forum on Guerilla Policy. It’s actually a lot more exciting than that, so give us a bit of time to explain what we’ve done.

Our new forum is based on StatusNet, the world’s leading open source social software. StatusNet is a microblogging application, similar to Twitter. As its developer says, StatusNet “enables [people] to collaborate, share insights, solve problems and build relationships in real time.” Here’s what you can do using our site:

  • start conversations on issues that matter to you;
  • ask questions to the rest of the community;
  • invite others to participate in projects and develop collaborations;
  • join existing conversations and share your thoughts;
  • set-up a profile for you or your organisation;
  • search for topics, people and organisations;
  • send direct messages to people and organisations.

You can also set-up private areas if you’re not ready to share a project with the whole community.

Why this particular software? We’ve said before that we think the future of policy research and development is in collaboration rather than competition. It’s a discussion, not a war of attrition, because no single person or organisation has the monopoly on truth. Social software creates an open environment for collaboration, and this is what we’re trying out with our new site.

(You might be thinking that if the software is like Twitter, then why not just use Twitter? Firstly, the software we’re using is open source, which means that we can use it for free and tweak it to suit the needs of our community. Secondly, it means that the conversations we have here are owned by the people and organisations that participate and contribute to them – try asking Twitter or Facebook to relinquish ownership of your data and see what their reaction is. Thirdly, we think that the future of social networks is in communities focused on particular issues or purposes, whereas Facebook, Twitter etc are just too general – but let’s see).

We’ve put this together very quickly (we’re called ‘guerilla’ after all) – and if it doesn’t work then we’ll try something else. This project is also a conversation, after all – we’ll be led by what the people who join our movement say they want and need in order to create better social policy.

So try out the site and let us know what you think. Start a conversation, join a conversation – go to Guerilla Policy.


Reflections on New Think Tank – 2. Stephen Bediako and Emily Littlewood

This is a series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to the New Think Tank project. This post is from Stephen Bediako and Emily Littlewood from The Social Innovation Partnership. Thanks to Stephen and Emily for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.

Existentialism holds that the starting point for any (philosophical) problem must be the experiences of the individual. When many individuals come together the combination of their perspectives starts the process of ‘group think’. This group think is then, in turn, the springboard for community and group mobilisation.

The world has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. We have irrevocably integrated our entire lives together, opinions and ideas pass around the globe in a matter of seconds. Individuals can now create groups on a host of social media including: Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Free and instant communication on a world-wide scale means that a single quiet voice can now be heard. And if it gets enough hits or likes – the same voice can become louder than ever before.

While the New Think Tank is still taking shape bear with us for a minute while we indulge in what we think it should or could be. There are three areas where we think it can add to the policy landscape. Each of these additions has already taken place in other industries or facets of our lives – so the precedent has previously been set. Therefore the New Think Tank will be an exercise of diffusing innovation across from other areas of our existence, rather than generating new innovation per se. In other words, the New Think Tank will be keeping the world of policy in-step with the rest our lives.

The first is democratising the voice of the critical mass. There are thousands (even hundreds of thousands) of exceedingly valuable public and social sector voices that are never heard in the policy reports of Government or leading think tanks. On a rare and lucky occasion there will be a consultation with a small group of workers, but they will represent a fraction of the overall workforce. The New Think Tank provides a real democratic opportunity for key workers to develop the policy that will shape their lives. The result is supremely relevant and political party neutral policy which is couched in personal experience.

Secondly, this democratisation should create some truly brilliant and shockingly innovative research. The research will also be of much greater variety – from the weird to the wonderful. For an example of democratisation, look at the music industry. The 21st century saw the collapse of the traditional record label business model and the ‘Big 5’ record producers. Some would say that since then the industry has taken a turn for the worse. We would argue however, that the music industry has never been better and is now thriving. The rise in digital music and file sharing sites, such as Spotify, combined with inexpensive recording software has changed the music landscape. It is now possible to produce quality music in your bedroom one evening and distribute it over the internet to a worldwide audience the next day. The rules have changed and barriers to entry are low, resulting in a vibrancy and variety of music that has not been seen before.

The final, and crucial, point is that this think tank provides a route back to democracy. The genuine participation of public professionals in developing policy feels like an empowering and invigorating idea to me – if it works – the message it could send to the general public could be even bigger. The production of policy that drives our country needs to be opened up and the internet and crowdsourcing is the route for it. In the same way that access to music, goods, information and people has all been revolutionized by the internet. The time has come and it will be unstoppable.

Stephen Bediako is a Director at The Social Innovation Partnership where he works with clients to innovate and implement new ideas and services, deliver evaluations of their projects and manage the delivery of programmes.

Emily Littlewood is a Research Analyst at The Social Innovation Partnership where she works on evaluations and innovation projects related to young people, education, and criminal justice.

The Social Innovation Partnership – ‘Research, Evaluation, Outcomes’ – www.tsip.co.uk


Exit, voice or loyalty – what matters most in building online communities?

We’re creating a platform for people who use and provide public and voluntary services to inform better social policy. For this to be a place they want to come to, and invest time and energy in, it will have to feel like – it will have to be – their community. How can we ensure that our community becomes theirs? The answer lies in an essay published more than 40 years ago.

The Guardian has been running an interesting series of articles this week on the ‘battle for the internet‘. Wednesday’s articles considered the growth of ‘walled gardens‘ such as Facebook and iTunes. The usefulness and increasing ubiquity of these privately-owned ‘public squares’ raises important privacy, censorship and accessibility issues. These might not matter much to most of us, most of the time, but they still matter – both personally (for example, when they use our data in a way we didn’t anticipate) and politically (given the economic, social and cultural power such companies now wield). This has led some commentators to suggest that these platforms are effectively public utilities and should be regulated as such, but this (highly unlikely) proposition has only been put forward because of our lack of influence, as ordinary users, over how these platforms operate and what their policies are.

The only way we can really hope to influence how they act is to leave (with all of the obvious downsides of doing so). This is the ‘exit’ option described in Albert Hirschman’s oft-cited 1970 essay Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Facebook’s owners – which could be you if you’re intending to buy some of their shares – must at some level exist in a perpetual state of fear that their users can simply up sticks, and in this way the threat of exit is a powerful driver for improvement. It leads to new features, better services etc – indeed it’s the basis of free and competitive markets. But this doesn’t make these communities ours – quite the opposite, it distances us from them.

Exit isn’t the only ‘option’ we want in relation to the communities of which we’re part. This is why Hirschman notes that, in addition to leaving, people can try to use their ‘voice’, that is they can attempt to repair or improve matters through communicating their problem and/or proposing a solution. What’s clear, thought about in this way, is that platforms like Facebook are highly unlikely to listen to our views unless they are accompanied by the threat of exit. We can judge this because Facebook et al. have  failed (or haven’t cared) to develop mechanisms and processes by which we can effectively express our voice and influence how they operate.

Hirschman suggests there’s a third factor at play, which is loyalty. This can slow exit (for example, people feel very strongly attached to a particular brand), but perhaps only for a time. Loyalty can drive people to use their voice – to suggest changing things and improving them, so that they aren’t forced to exit. You’re more likely to use your voice if you have some degree of loyalty to a community, institution or company – otherwise why would you bother?

Hirschman’s model, though in one sense pretty simple, is the kind of idea that once you read about it sticks with you and you find yourself applying to all sorts of situations (which of the three aspects of it you think matters the most can also suggest a particular political persuasion). My own view is that exit matters – a lot. If you don’t like something, show how you feel. If you want to use a social network that doesn’t own all your data, then support the development of Diaspora. If you don’t like Microsoft’s (often tardy) programs, choose open source software (like we’ll be doing for our demo platform). If you’re tired of being prompted and pushed around by iTunes, use another music player. And if you want to support the development of a new way of creating better social policy in a community that you shape – if you want to break down the ‘walled garden’ that is most policymaking – then watch this space.

But surely a better way to build and retain a community – and so strengthen loyalty – is to enable and encourage people to exercise their voice. It’s this that ultimately determines the health and sustainability of (online) communities, because it determines the extent to which people feel that they own a community. It may be less tangible, but it’s much more meaningful, than holding a few hundred shares out of a few million. In this spirit, I’d be interested in what you think about what makes communities work – what attracts you to them, and why you stay.


Here’s our idea – let us know what you think

We’ve been working on this project for a few months now and here’s where we’ve got to. Below is something like a marketing description, but it also indicates the functionality we’re looking at for our proof-of-concept website. It’s still work-in-progress, but let us know what you think. (It won’t be called ‘New think tank’ of course, that’s just a stand-in name – suggestions for that are welcome as well).

[New think tank] connects people and organisations to improve social policy.

[New think tank] is a social network for the people and organisations who use and provide public and voluntary services. With the [New think tank] community, you can conduct policy and research work that’s credible, affordable, and timely.

Credible.

The [New think tank] community is made up of people who use and provide public services. They’ll help you understand what’s happening at the frontline, and to develop practical and popular proposals. This will help to give your organisation credible answers and a stronger profile.

Affordable.

Because it’s online, [New think tank] is a very cost-effective way to conduct policy and research work. Through [New think tank] you can share intelligence, recruit and work with partners, and even find funding for projects.

Timely.

[New think tank] enables you to conduct policy and research work quickly and easily. You can instantly test out ideas for a new research project and invite people to participate in it, invite suggestions for a policy statement or consultation response, or source relevant case studies for a report or news story.

With [New think tank], you can develop and deliver a project from start to finish – you can even commission a new project in minutes. Here’s how:

Create a profile – for you or your organisation, then connect and communicate with others. Share news and publicise events. You can import your profile from other social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, and even login using your profiles from these networks.

Test out ideas – post questions, start discussions and propose projects. The most popular ideas and projects get featured most prominently. You can also follow and comment using other social networks.

Conduct projects – start a project and invite others to participate. Create an open or invite-only forum and assemble a virtual project team. Post questions and surveys, or draft and edit reports collaboratively.

Find partners – recruit other organisations to partner with, or find funding for a project. Host forums to manage projects, store and share useful documents, and easily track project activity wherever you and your partners are.

Share findings – publish and promote your projects. Use the site as a hub to share your findings and recommendations. Automatically send updates to and from other social networks, and use the community to disseminate your work more widely.


What it is (nearly)

I had a conversation today about this project where I spent a fair bit of the time explaining what it isn’t. For example:

  • It isn’t a think tank, commonly understood, because it won’t have the infrastructure or staffing or resources associated with think tanks (indeed this is a critical part of the business model);
  • It isn’t a competitor to existing think tanks, because we’re looking mainly at a market that doesn’t commission research at the moment;
  • It isn’t a research supplier as such, because the point of our approach is that charities and other provider organisations often have much of what they need in order to conduct policy work already (credibility, experience and expertise, relationships to stakeholders etc).

I don’t mind having to take this ‘isn’t’ approach – though it does make what we’re doing sound more negative than I’d like – but obviously it begs the question of what this is.

One of the difficulties with innovation (if I can call this an ‘innovation’) is describing what you’re doing in a simple, easily-graspable way for others, when by definition it’s something new, and at the same time as you’re still exploring for yourself and potential customers what the ‘is’ is. This is why you find yourself using more ‘isn’ts’ than you’d like (and hedging these often makes it even murkier: “Well, not exactly, it isn’t quite like so-and-so…” etc etc).

One way that anyone developing anything ‘new’ tries to get around this is to compare their ‘it’ to some existing products and services (‘it’s like x but for y’). Or they cite examples of things we’d all like more of and then suggest that their product or service will produce these things more cheaply and easily. We’ve done both of these at various times here. We’ve suggested that it’s like ‘Sourceforge [but] for social policy‘ and that we’d like what we’re doing here to support the production of many more user-led Spartacus-like reports.

Both of these approaches keep some of your options open – but only for a while. (And after all, what does it really mean to claim, as thousands of entrepreneurs must have done over the past few years, that they’re developing ‘the new Facebook, but for [insert niche but potentially profitable audience here]’? And if it’s so much like Facebook, minus of course the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in functionality that Facebook and its investors have made, then why wouldn’t your target audience just use Facebook instead?)

Inevitably you begin to approach the point when you have to say ‘this is what it is’, in order to give potential partners enough to provide you with an honest response about whether it meets a real need they have – in short whether they’re in or not. But you resist this because you also have to give something up: the idea that your project appeals to everyone or could ever appeal to everyone. Promise and potential (which are nice things that everyone can buy into) has to give way to practical appeal (which of course means a much smaller audience of actual buyers). In this sense, the more you define what it is, the more you make it something that isn’t for some (probably most) of your potential audience.

We’re getting nearer to this point – but we’re not there quite yet.